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I was browsing one day and came across this comment in this discussion(italics mine):

I feel English is a reading language, if you are reading an English book, you watch the word and make sound in your brain. But Chinese can be a watching language, take a Chinese book, I can watch over a paragraph and get the meaning of most part. Well, you may not believe, but it's true. Compare and for example, you can see that is simple and clear, but like a mess. You maybe surprise how can Chinese find the information in this mess. Well, native Chinese will get the most part easy by scrolling down and take a glance. – Xiè Jìléi Apr 4 at 9:45

Is there any science behind this? Or does the commenter just refer to scanning text.

I checked out a number of other search engines(eg; and found no correlations myself.

Can Chinese readers scan large amounts of text faster/more accurately than their alphabet-using counterparts? So if we placed a native Chinese speaker next to a native English speaker having the same education and literacy levels and gave them both a text of the same length and complexity in their respective languages, would one of them a) finish faster? b)comprehend more accurately? c)better retain read information?

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Written Chinese are logographs that convey semantics graphically rather than phonologically. I think it is quite difficult to compare the two just by looking at length and complexity. It would be interesting to look at some studies. – 杨以轩 Aug 24 '12 at 16:25
Written Chinese represents semantics the same way that other written languages do: mediated through the spoken language. – Stumpy Joe Pete Aug 28 '12 at 5:36
up vote 12 down vote accepted

This research seems to be relevant.

Your question seems to be closely related to rapid reading techniques. Looking on those techniques, you may notice that many of them don't apply to Chinese, simply because logographic writing systems naturally allow rapid reading with no extra training.
There is even an idiom, 一目十行 -- "reading ten lines at the same time"; literally, "one eye ten lines`.

  • Sub-vocalization, a process of associating a text with its phonetic representation. It slows down reading in any language, but Chinese symbols are always monosyllabic, and the majority of dictionary words consist of only two syllables.
  • Replacing a sequential word-by-word reading to seeing a whole page at once (or, actually, square blocks of text). Chinese text is naturally a grid by itself.
  • Related to above, but different, avoiding linear reading. Alphabetic writing systems imply the words aligned horizontally. Your eyes follow a word and it's difficult to follow several lines at once.
  • Seenig the shape of the wrods, not redaing them in detial. (how many typos did you see here?). In Chinese, you don't look at each stroke or radical, you just get the entire character at once. Look here: someone can recognize 300-800 characters, but admits that he/she still needs 5-10 seconds to recall a single one.
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Is there any information available about Chinese speed reader levels? I found a couple claims on baidu Encyclopedia but they didn't seem to have any foundation(including one claim of 200,000 wpm) China, with it's emphasis on intellectual acuity must have some form of standardized speed reading contest. My Hanzi reading is atrocious and the automatic translation is no help. Anyone have any ideas? – tao Aug 26 '12 at 16:07
Wow, I always feel that I can scan a page of Chinese and quickly locate the information I need, but not English. I thought it was because Chinese is my mother tongue. – Siyuan Ren Aug 31 '12 at 10:29

Adding a point to bytebuster's answer: from my own experience, "trackback cost" is another major factor. During fast scanning it is common that I need to go back a few words/characters to get the context or resolve ambiguity. In English, in most cases going back one word or two is not sufficient, I need to go further back or even reread the whole sentence which is much more expensive than in Chinese I only need to look back a few characters and with square characters my eyes can locate them quickly.

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According to this paper, Chinese is indeed read at a measurably faster speed than English.

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The abstract is very intriguing, maybe I'll cough up the 40 bucks for the rest of the article. Thanks for the relevant share. – tao Jan 21 '14 at 9:58

I remember there's a research about different ways of processing written information between Chinese and English speakers. Chinese readers have active spots in a part of the brain that deals with pictures, while a different place in the brains of English-speaking readers is responsible for reading. It might be possible that Chinese recognize all the characters on a page as a whole picture.

What's more, the Chinese translation of a book is usually shorter than its English version.

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Well, obviously the Chinese translation is shorter! You have a whole lot more characters/symbols than in English (just 26, compared to several thousands). – Igor Popov Mar 8 '14 at 19:43

In my experience, the speed of reading Chinese and reading English are just not comparable. I can read a long paragraph written in Chinese at a single glance, and get almost all the essential meaning. Also, I could scan and locate the information I need in a hell long article almost instantly, provided it must be written in Chinese. I am trying to find a way that can make me achieve this in reading English articles, especially huge amount of academic content. I can now apply some rapid reading tricks to reading English stuff, but still cannot read a whole page at once, which seems to be natural when I am reading Chinese content.

The most important issue that prevents fast reading should be Sub-vocalization, not information processing limit, for educated people. Chinese symbols, if you have been enough familiar and sensitive to them, would result in reading Chinese at the speed of light. The logographic writing systems in Chinese are essential for extreme fast, non-linear reading, which is mentioned in a Chinese idiom “一目十行” -- "reading ten lines at the same time"; literally, "one eye ten lines`.

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"You maybe surprise how can Chinese find the information in this mess." To my opinion, Chinese has much more characters than English, each character is quite different form another, and when they consist of one word, it gets more different from other words, so we can easily find some key words in a text. You can practice.

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Senseless question. You wouldn't acknowledge, but you scan 'images', too when reading English. You never read a word letter-by-letter, unless you encounter something that is not familiar to you, foreign names, etc.

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I agree, when reading in English we do see words as images, but due to the negative influence of factors mentioned in the accepted answer, it slows us down more than we acknowledge. – tao Jan 21 '14 at 9:53

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